The Mariotti Rules

The book from hell. –Jay Mariotti, Sun-Times, November 11

Hysteria over The Book escalates. –Jay Mariotti, Sun-Times, November 13

The Jordan Rules . . . might be the best sports book since Season on the Brink about Bob Knight. –Jay Mariotti, Sun-Times, November 17

Nothing improves a good book more than reading it. Sometime last week, Jay Mariotti halted his cascade of white-hot prose on The Jordan Rules long enough to pick it up. Then he learned what only turning pages could tell him: it’s a carefully researched, closely observed portrait of the Bulls during the season they came to be the world’s best basketball team. Far from being the scandal-roiling screed that Mariotti announced on November 11 “might become one of the most damaging books ever written about a sports team,” it told the Bulls nothing about themselves they didn’t already know.

But we do not want to cast aspersions on Mariotti. We called him and congratulated him. His explosion of hyperbole, duly reported from coast to coast by the AP, grandly made the most of a delicious opportunity. Mariotti achieved overnight notoriety for a book nine publishers had rejected, a book the Tribune, where the author toils, had expected to announce to a sleeping world itself. In one fell swoop, Mariotti advanced his own two-fisted reputation, helped line Sam Smith’s pockets, and stuck it to the moguls who run Smith’s paper. A good week’s work.

Mariotti, who may not be as sure of his triumph as we are, told us this week he’d spoken his piece in his columns and would say no more. He wouldn’t answer our question, which is whether he’d even seen The Jordan Rules before he began writing about it.

“He clearly didn’t have the book,” Smith told us, “and he clearly didn’t have excerpts.”

Simon & Schuster, the publisher, hadn’t shipped out galleys or review copies in advance. But excerpts were in the hands of the publisher’s sales reps, as well as editors at the Tribune and Sports Illustrated; Mariotti probably saw them, even if he seems to have guessed wrong on one important point. Smith wrote very little about the Bulls after hours.

“I think he’s a pretty good reporter,” Smith told us. But “some of the stuff [in the November 11 column] wasn’t true. Let me get it exactly here–this was the toughest part for me. I’d told the players, ‘I’m not going to write about your private lives.’ He’d said, ‘Contrary to popular rumor surrounding the book’–I wasn’t aware of any such rumors–‘there is not a shred of material about family-man Jordan and womanizing.’ So he throws that out there and denies it. ‘The same can’t be said for reformed ladies’ men Grant and Scottie Pippen, whose nocturnal adventures are chronicled, along with those of other players. Rich young men will be rich young men. The NBA life-style is duly noted.’

“None of that is in there!” Smith complained. “The only thing that hurt me was that Horace Grant is really a religious guy. He comes to practice on Monday and he’s asked, ‘What’s your comment on this book that accuses you of womanizing?’ Of course he’s going to jump up and down and accuse me of lies. If I’d been Horace, I’d have hunted me down. I called Horace that night–and other players, married players.”

What’s puzzling, said Smith, is that he’d talked to Mariotti before the November 11 column ran. “He asked me if I wrote about womanizing, and I told him no.” Later, he said, “another reporter at the Sun-Times said his editors had been told I’d written about womanizing in the book, and he wanted to know if it was true. I don’t know why they’re continuing to raise this issue.”

If he had written about womanizing, Smith tantalized us by saying, “it would have been the most serious thing in the book. It would have been headlines. To me, there are no headlines in the book.”

We think there are, though possibly not where other reporters have been looking for them. There’s an intriguing discussion of NBA referees when Smith describes the Chicago-Philadelphia playoff last spring. The Bulls won the first two games, the series moved to Philadelphia, and the crew the league sent in to call game three, “although competent regarding the rules, would be vulnerable” to home-court pressure.

Smith wrote, “The Bulls were not surprised. The league couldn’t want another Bulls sweep. It was too costly. The league had a TV contract with NBC to honor and ticket revenues to consider for owners like Philadelphia’s Harold Katz, whose team didn’t regularly draw sellouts.”

And what happened? In the closing seconds of game three, Pippen “appeared to be fouled driving for the basket.” The foul wasn’t called, his shot went wild, and the Bulls lost 99-97.

Good stuff, we told Smith. “Inside of basketball, every coach, everybody connected with the game, is so attuned to that,” he said. “Everybody discusses it constantly. It’s one of the differences between those who are inside the game and those who watch the game. That’s one of the reasons athletes don’t respect the media. We write about momentum. We write about these vague concepts because we don’t understand how the game works. That’s what I tried to bring out.”

Images of Llamas in the Media

Mark Bryant had a problem with his magazine, although he didn’t know it. Bryant is the editor of Outside magazine, published in Chicago. The problem, as it so often is these days, was disrespect.

“Outside magazine has never been a big fan of llamas,” argues the current issue of America’s national magazine devoted to llamas, which is called Llamas. “Llamas have been maligned several times in past issues of this magazine for the outdoor enthusiast.”

Llamas could be maligned with relative impunity back in 1979, when defenders of the sturdy ruminant were a voiceless few. But that year saw Llamas founded as a three-page newsletter run off on a mimeograph machine. The years since have been difficult for magazines like the New Yorker and Harper’s and the Atlantic that don’t dependably offer people exactly what they wish to read about. But Llamas is now a 128-page bimonthly distributed to 5,000 readers in 50 states and 14 foreign countries.

More’s the scandal, Bryant had not heard of Llamas until we brought the assault by the Sacramento-based journal to his attention. “I’m not aware of us maligning them,” he mused, every bit as concerned as you’d be in his shoes. “I don’t think Outside has really given any thought to an official policy on llamas.”

But facts are facts. Correspondent Marty McGee reports in each issue of Llamas on llama sightings in the mass media. She told us, “I’ve been writing the Newsprint column three and a half years, and in all the time I’ve been writing it there have been four or five instances where people have sort of taken side passes at llamas. I guess it’s not awful, but it seems every time Outside magazine mentions llamas it’s with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. There’s never been an article that’s accurate.”

She continued, “I don’t really mind when people make fun of llamas, because llamas are fun. They’re almost a caricature of an animal. What I mind is when their attributes are not honestly portrayed.”

McGee takes issue with the July Outside’s “Rambling Through the Winds,” an account of a trek through Wyoming’s wilds with rented llamas. “The problem is,” McGee argued in Llamas, “one of two photos of llamas (and the only one of the llamas wearing packs) shows the llamas stalled in the middle of a stream with the author pulling with all his might to no avail. . . . It does seem a trifle unfair to me to portray these hard-working guys in their one moment of recalcitrance.”

McGee, who travels the country teaching llama-training clinics–“The particular method I teach is a way of being with llamas so they have a way to like you back”–had immediately grasped the llamas’ predicament.

“They’re dung pilers,” she revealed. “They go in the same spot. And when llamas get their feet wet, they tend to want to go to the bathroom. Those llamas in the picture–it isn’t that they didn’t want to go forward. They wanted to poop in the stream.”

Exactly the level of perception the popular press is unequipped to provide. Thus, specialty journals thrive.

Candidate Lies!

A recent New York Times story that jumped out at us was a report by Roberto Suro under the headline “Duke Repeating Distorted Facts Despite Rebuttals.”

David Duke “often twists the statements of others and distorts facts.” He makes “false claims.” He has “repeated a variety of blatant misrepresentations even after his opponent, news organizations and the subjects of his statements have publicly tried to clarify the record.” He “continually misrepresents facts about his personal history.” He “sometimes offers false information when he has other options.”

Tough stuff. But now think about the elected official you like least. Does the same shoe fit that public servant’s last campaign? Was there a news article that so bluntly said so? Almost certainly not.

The one nice thing about a candidate with the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party in his background is the obligation the press suddenly remembers it has to point out when someone’s lying.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.